Anishinaabe Elder develops land-based healing program

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An Anishinaabe Elder is pioneering a new self-healing program rooted in Anishinaabeg teachings about the land.

Gilbert Smith has lived his entire life in Naicatchewenin First Nations. For the past eight years, he’s been creating a program called Kadamizwin, a word from the Anishinaabe language meaning “knowledge.”

“And it’s about self-healing, and teaching the real Anishinaabeg traditions and ceremonies to help with that self-healing for people who have addictions and mental health issues,” says co-worker Sarah Shahmouradyan. “And as you know, those statistics are staggering in the Indigenous communities, and the last two years of COVID. And the impact of isolation has really brought that issue to the fore.”

“Not too many people know what’s out there, out in the land. And not too many people know that everything is alive,” says Smith.

He reflects how Anishinaabeg have possessed unique knowledge and connection to Earth since time immemorial, a relationship rooted in deep respect.

Unlike most training programs, Smith emphasizes that at the forefront, Kadamizwin focuses on relationships and passing down the Anishinaabe way of life. This differs from Western science which tends to view healing from a biological and clinical perspective. The program will be offered in two languages — Anishinaabeg and English — and is new in Fort Frances and many other regions across Canada where Indigenous practices for healing are less common, yet integral for holistic health and wellness.

“We’re gonna use the land or we’re going to use our ceremonies, if needed. We’re not going to push that on them. ‘You got to do this, do that,’ kind of thing. No, we’re not going to do that,” says Smith. “It’s their choice if they want to use our way of life.

“There won’t be a medication to tell them, ‘hey, take this, it’ll get you well.’ It’s all about sharing what could help them. They gotta learn how to use their listening skills. And they’ve got to learn how to respect other people, not only Anishinaabeg, anybody that comes along, if they want to get well. And that’s how they will be pulled away from the addiction and abuse that they’re facing right now.

“There are so many more things that we’re going to do on this. It’s not a training. It’s not a treatment. It’s teaching them the way of how they can heal, how they can stay away from these addictions that are driving them to where they are right now with problems.”

Working in the field of addictions has personal significance to Smith. Before retirement, he did group and one-on-one work with people addicted to drugs and alcohol, a passion fuelled by his own past with addictions. He emphasizes the severity of drug and alcohol addictions in the region and says that he will work with anyone, not only First Nations people.

“I retired 10 years ago, when I turned 65,” Smith says. “You see, I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been sober for over 40 years now. I’ve discovered many things that could help people, if they choose to get help from that point.”

Approximately 10 per cent of Ontario’s population (1.5 million people) experience addiction at some point in their life. The Canadian Mental Health Association reported a growing trend of harm related to opioids, a drug that is often used for pain management and that includes fentanyl, morphine, heroin, and oxycodone. A national report on apparent opioid-related deaths stated that in 2017, opioids alone accounted for 4,000 deaths.

However, further research has shown that the crisis disproportionately affects Anishinaabeg — a number likely understated due to inadequate data collection.

“The crisis situation we’re facing here, it’s really bad. It’s really bad. Like, just recently, there is two more overdose deaths, all related to drug and alcohol stuff. So something’s got to be done, says Smith.

Smith says that the program will likely launch later this fall, and operate year-round. At the moment, they are strategically engaging with partners such as businesses and local offices for donations and building connections.

“We got everything set up, like an office set up here in my house. And we have that corporation status. We’re a nonprofit organization. So we have everything so far, we have an open bank account and with a little bit of money in there, but we need more funds to get us moving in the right direction to help these people that are struggling.”

Kadamizwin also offers knowledge about Anishinaabeg history and their treaty with the people of Canada for those who want to learn how to improve relationships between Anishinaabeg and non-native people. This is offered to all residents, industries, and organizations.

“We all need to work together on this, Anishinaabeg and non-native. We need everyone to come together,” said Smith.

Shahmouradyan feels Smith is the right leader for the program.

“If you ever meet Gilbert, hopefully, you’ll have the opportunity in the future, you will know that he’s a wonderful person and has a great spirit,” she said.

For any questions or inquiries, to partner with or to seek support from addictions, contact Gilbert Smith at (807) 486-3551 or 275-9497 or through email at